Linda Tuhiwai Smith: Live Up to Our Talk

This is the keynote address by Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, from the He Manawa Whenua Conference 2013. There are so many good take-aways in this for us as indigenous researchers to be mindful of.

Click here for information on the He Manawa Whenua Conference 2017 



Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou

The University of Waikato


I want to acknowledge those of you who have come from afar, from many different parts of the world, but also want to acknowledge those of you who have come from afar in Aotearoa. We welcome you all to our conference and hope that you enjoy the next 3 days.

My talk this morning I thought would be appropriate at the beginning of a conference. It’s on rhetoric, in other words, on talk. And the next 3 days is going to be full of talk. And I guess what I want to say to us is, how do we learn to live up to our talk, living up to rhetoric. And you know it’s a challenge to those of us who are researchers to keep working at what we do, because we have much to live up to, and actually it is quite hard to live up to it. And that is not just because we are imperfect human beings, but because we work and live in a very complex and sometimes an extremely imperfect culture. The concept of rhetoric I’ve really taken from the Greek classical tradition of public talk, public discourse, and public discourse that is meant to be persuasive and purposeful. There is a reason why people get into rhetoric; it is to persuade others, to inspire others. It is a way to structure meanings, not what we mean but what we want others to take away as meaning. It is a way to inspire others, and to convince and to influence. And in that way, talk or rhetoric can actually define culture and define how society thinks, what society believes; it can transform cultural meanings. We often think about rhetoric as simply political discourse and people can be very cynical about what rhetoric is. It is simply talk, and you often hear the expression ‘oh, they’re just talking’; in other words, there is no substance to the talk.

So there is a dark side to rhetoric. Rhetoric can also be viewed as a tool or device to distort the truth, to deceive people and, in our terms in New Zealand, just to ‘bull-shit’ everybody – I can’t think of a polite way to say that. Hence the expression that something said is ‘just talk’, it is meaningless. So rhetoric, in a way, is a way of persuading others, through the use of symbols; through the eliciting or provoking of responses; through appeals to people’s emotions, to their heart, to something inside them which is likely to respond, to connect with people, to connect with their values, to connect with their concerns, and to perform in ways that people feel comfortable with, and people develop a trust in the message. It is also a way to convince and to use language in a way that people are drawn into the argument and accept the logic of it.

So rhetoric really is a powerful use of public talk, and that is really what I want to move onto, is Māori public talk about research. In other words, Māori research rhetoric, or Indigenous research rhetoric. And there is some developmental elements in the way that we talk about research publically as Māori and as Indigenous. And it has necessarily been developmental, and I think it is kind of important that we hold that understanding, that where we are today, we can talk about some things now because others made it possible, and because other arguments were won decades ago. I think, in a Māori tradition, when you look back at our early scholars, post colonisation, you do see this willingness to engage with European and Pākehā knowledge. So we did have an early phase of engagement with research and with knowledge and with belief; a profound deep belief of our ancestors that we knew our world. And I think Pou [Temara] gave an example earlier of King Pōtatau, we knew our world. He had knowledge, and we had a tradition of knowledge. And I think in that early phase of engagement there was genuine hopefulness that our knowledge would continue, that our grasp of our world, that our understanding of our world would continue as a way for us to continue to know our world.

We then went through a phase where our voices were muted, our understanding of our world was rocked, quite literally, by our displacement and by our wars with the coloniser, and we moved into a mode of resistance and actually a mode of deep depression that challenged our own belief systems. We then began a rather long journey of fighting back – actually that journey pretty much started as soon as the Treaty [of Waitangi] was signed – but it has been a long fight back and a long talking back.

So the use of rhetoric, political rhetoric for Māori does actually have a long tradition for us in the sort of post-colonial times. That fight back also involved the development of some critical tools, and these critical tools are essential in the way, certainly I, understand what Māori research is about. It also involves reassertion of our identity and trying to understand that identity post the disruption of colonisation. Because it was a damaged identity in some way, but it was also a resilient and resistant identity that was able to reform, and it was able to take heart, I guess from the waters beneath; that kind of source of things that have kept us going over time. It has also been an assertion of our tino rangatiratanga, our sort of determination, self-determination and an understanding of what the framework of the Treaty of Waitangi might deliver, if the Treaty was in some way honoured, by the country, the society who have imposed their government on us.

And, in this sense, I am talking about one element of the Treaty, both in Article 2 and in Article 3; and that is the right for us to have an intellectual life. The right to an intellectual life as collectives, and the right to an intellectual life as individuals. And this right to an intellectual life is also a right to an imagination, a right to create and be creative, a right to continue our hopes and aspirations. To me, those rights are also embedded in our Treaty.

I think we also went through a phase, an active phase, of connecting internationally with other Indigenous struggles, and trying to search the world for people who are like us. It is a natural human thing to do, to hope that you are not alone, and to believe that the struggles that we have are not just ours alone, that somehow a burden shared makes a burden possible to carry.

Then we went through a phase of trying to understand, deploy and mobilise our voice, the use of modern political Māori rhetoric, and being able to understand the power of that voice in a dominant world: how that voice could be used strategically; how that voice could be used strategically to upset the other; how that voice could be used strategically to lift up the hopes of Māori; how that voice could be used strategically to totally get up the nose of people in power. And it seemed to me a really important phase. And out of that phase came what was Māori Language Day, and what became Māori Language Week. That was the phase of political direct action of the 1970s.

Then we moved into a space of claiming theory and method. In other words claiming the ‘tools’ of research and refashioning them in our own image. Refashioning those tools as our tools. And reconnecting those tools actually to our past, to understand that we had research-active ancestors who managed to navigate the greatest body of water on earth, and to do that purposefully. They didn’t accidentally wash up here, it was not two men in a boat or even three men in a boat, because if there were three men in a boat, obviously the women were already here. These were purposeful voyages across the Pacific by people who understood not only their world, but the world beyond planet earth, the world beyond the ocean that we now know as the Pacific. They knew many things, they had deep insight into what they lived in, and that was a universe.

So, that claiming of theory and method in the world of research has been really important, and to take the path of research back to our story and to find that aka matua [primary vine] of our knowledge, to reconnect our endeavours today with that tradition and not the tradition of the western academy.

So I think we then began a phase of confidence in the use of our own cultural frameworks, and the development, particularly in the 1980s of a number of frameworks; John Rangihau had a framework, Rose Pere had a framework, ways to reintegrate our Māori values as conceptual frameworks for making sense of the world, and enabling us to generate more appropriate interpretations of what was happening to us. It enabled us to define new spaces and to claim spaces that were once ours, to reclaim those spaces and, more recently, to be able to engage with others again but more on our own terms.

I think we have had a desire in Māori research to produce knowledge and to produce research that is useful to our people, that contributes to our development and advancement as Māori, and that leads to new insights that inspire us to voyage purposefully into the future. I say that with real care, because at one level producing useful knowledge, or what is called ‘utilitarian knowledge, is not just about practical knowledge – because to me producing knowledge that helps us think in a new way about an old problem is useful; to produce knowledge that makes us pause and redefine the way we understand something is useful. So I don’t make a distinction necessarily between theoretical knowledge or creative knowledge or practical knowledge. I think if it moves us, if it inspires us, if it causes us to stop and think, then it has been useful.

These steps are not about an intellectual abstraction but actually they are about general political struggles that have been fought in the elite western institutions of knowledge and simultaneously in the minds of our own people. I think that is what makes much of our struggle really challenging. It’s bad enough trying to change an institution, I’ve spent my entire career trying to do that; I give myself 3 out of 10. But when at the same time you are trying to convince your own communities, your own tribes that education is important, that knowledge is important, that academic discipline is important, that research is important, that theory is important, that method is important, that logic is really important, that being rational and ethical is really, really important – and that’s just with our own people – I give myself 1 out of 10.

So the challenge is to use rhetoric, in other words, to use public talk, really for two separate audiences. That is our challenge. How do we ‘speak’, if you like, to the academy, how do we speak to power, how do we speak to ourselves, how do we speak to our own communities, and how do we convince them that we are actually useful.

How does rhetoric then inspire change? I think one of the things I have learnt is the importance of being able to see beyond a horizon. To me that is a world I have lived in, an imaginative world, and it is easy to be dismissed – ‘oh you’re just dreaming’, ‘oh that’s just a fantasy’, or ‘that will never happen’. Our story is: well, actually it can happen if you dream it; it can happen if you imagine it; and it will never happen if you do not. Our imaginations are important, our ability to be creative is important, and we have to imagine our identity all the time on a daily basis, and we have to imagine that identity as a positive one, as one we are proud of. And many of you who I know, who I see spend your day to day work, your day to day life lifting up the imaginations of our people, giving them hope and making them see that inside them is this huge, worthwhile, valuable human being, that that is your work on the ground. It is also important to see ourselves as actors in our space, as actors in our world, not as victims, not as passive recipients of other people’s distorted views of us.

It has also been important to apply principles of being sovereign. It’s one thing to talk about being self-determining; it’s an entirely different thing to act as if you are, to begin to take action, to behave as if you are self-determining. And I think that is where you get into this kind of difference around rhetoric and substance. You can talk as if you are self-determining but act in ways that you are not.

I think another challenge for us has been to move between the sort of individual and collective aspirations, to move between trying to improve yourself and trying to improve your own family, but having these vast responsibilities for improving the collective and for up-lifting the collective and for doing service to the collective. The responsibility of a Māori and an Indigenous individual is not to be an individual; their responsibility is to change and contribute to the collective.

So I think some of the things that researchers have done really well is developing a range of new models that help us think about ourselves in different ways. And perhaps in some fields, such as Education and Health which are the two fields I know well, it is developing new models for educating ourselves, for delivering services to ourselves, and for giving us examples for understanding actually how transformation works. We can all talk about change, but those of you who work in communities know that change is really hard. It is really hard. Firstly, how do you change mind-sets? How do you give hope, where there has been no hope? How do you provide different models for being, for just living? How do you change people’s economic circumstances? How do you change deep intergenerational impoverishment and the effects of disadvantage? So those of you that work at the community level will know that you change one thing here and other things unfold; you change one thing over here and something else unfolds. So it’s understanding this kind of unfolding element of change and how generational it is. It’s not simply about creating a new initiative, it’s being able to see down the line to 3 iterations of that initiative, through 3 generations of that initiative. Kōhanga Reo is a really good example of a movement that inspired Māori; it inspired Māori to create Kōhanga Reo or language nests in their homes, in their garages, at the local marae, in their church. It inspired them to do that with no money. It has inspired them to do that with no speakers of Māori language. When Kōhanga Reo started in 1982, in those early 1980s, it inspired people to do things beyond what they thought they were capable of doing alone. Now if you talk to people about Kōhanga Reo, my question is, does it still inspire? And that is what is difficult about change: how do you inspire intergenerationally? How do you keep the inspiration going over time? It’s easy to see a new initiative or an idea settle, it gets implemented, it gets regulated, it has rules, it starts to create its own bureaucracy, it trains its own people, and I am not just talking about Kōhanga. I am talking about any initiative that gets embedded, so that it starts to become something, and that something has to be fed, and that feeding of something starts to consume resources, and then the feeding of it takes over its imagination, its imaginative potential. And it’s trying to understand what that means for us over time.

I would say ditto for research, that what we have got to understand is the iterations of Indigenous research over time, because as some of you younger ones get involved in research you’re in a new world, you have an identity as a researcher that others before you have helped create. And the critical questions is: what do you take with you from that past, and how do you add value to it through your own work?

Let me move then to: how do we live up to our rhetoric. Really I think the rules are easy, they are actually spelled out to us from our past, and they are so simple that we take them for granted:

Stand in your own world, or ground ourselves in our world; Know our past; Honour our ancestors.

You know, actually, sometimes we have to forgive some of them, because you may think, ‘oh god, what did you do that for?’ or ‘why didn’t you do more?’ We have to understand their time, and not judge them by our time. But we also have to honour their resistance, and we have to honour the legacy that they gave us. We have to value the treasures of our ancestors. And those treasures are not just the material treasures – actually they didn’t leave any, most of their material treasures were stolen – but we can go abstract, we can go conceptual, we can go into the value space, to value the treasures of our ancestors; to value the alternative ways of knowing that they left us in our language; to value the concepts of knowledge that they left us; to value the maps for finding ourselves again and again that they left us; to exercise generosity, to understand the power of sharing as much as the power of defending what’s yours; to enter new spaces with caution, to understand what it means to venture into the unknown; to have courage when you are up against it; to know what it means to act rather than to give in; and to know which battles are worth fighting.

And I know that I am talking in a general kind of way. But to me all of this is important in research. What I am talking about is equally important in research, that as researchers we have to be grounded in our Indigenous world. Sometimes I listen to research and I am thinking, ‘oh, that’s different’. I’m usually impressed, it is like ‘wow, I hadn’t thought about that one, that’s really flash’. But then something in my stomach starts to go ping, ping, ping, and what usually does it for me is when I try to apply the idea to my own community, my own tribe. And it makes me smile, because I think, ‘yeah right, that ain’t going to work’, or ‘it’s not like that at home’.

So, being able to speak from an authentic position as an Indigenous researcher, to understand what that means. I mean it’s kind of coded in an international Indigenous world, there is this coding, because you are not meant to ask, ‘are you Indigenous?’ Well, this has been true for decades, you never ask, ‘are you Indigenous?’, when you ask that you’re desperate. It’s a coded language, which usually starts, ‘oh, so where are you from and how did you get here?’ And, really, it is a network of other people you trust who introduce people into your network, that’s normally how it works. Everyone here in this room, the Indigenous ones, we know how they got here, so we know that they are Indigenous. And for us that is really important, that they come in a trusted way through the door, and that they settle and understand the protocols at work.

So that kind of idea of being really confident yourself, about speaking in another Indigenous world is important. How do you make that transition into another space? Also, as a researcher, how do you honour those who have come before? Some people do it because they name all the fathers generally of the discipline, but in Indigenous research there are lots of mothers. And bringing that past down not just from the recent past but actually from our own traditions of knowledge, being able to go that far back and bring it down into our work. How do we value their contributions, but also move those contributions forward? How do we exercise generosity? I actually think that is important. It’s becoming more important as I sit on a number of key committees. We can be mean to each other, and we can be mean about each other and use confidentiality to mask that. I think it is really important to be generous, not to be mean and mean spirited. I see meanness in the way researchers assess each other, using blindness as an excuse.  

You know, I read a lot of proposals that are imperfect, but I think of my first proposal. It was really imperfect, but someone was generous and saw hope in it. Probably my fourth proposal was also really imperfect, and even the proposal I wrote recently was full of imperfections. As referees and assessors we have to see the goodness in it, and then give feedback that allows that goodness to shine.

I have a particular beef about meanness. I don’t want us to be mean, I don’t want us to behave in mean ways to each other, and I don’t want to see our meanness on display when I am in places where I’m the only Māori in the room. It hurts. But the other thing is I don’t think we need to be mean, we just simply need to learn the protocols of feedback and develop new ones. There is another beef I have, because after this you are going to have questions and I pretty much know 90% of the Māori audience don’t know how to ask questions. So I have a new protocol, it’s not called questions, it’s called ‘mihi’. If you do not have a question you can stand up and give your mihi, and inside it will be a question. So do not feel obliged to ask those direct questions that we find hard to ask. And do not feel obliged to give a kauhau as well, as some of our European counterparts can do, where they want to do their own speech because they did not like your one. Do what we know in our own practice and culture, and start from there and develop our own protocols.

And then just finally as a researcher, I guess I am getting old when I start to become less secular in my beliefs, and begin to think that those other worlds are really important, to understand how to move between them. I always knew as a teacher that one of the powers that a teacher or educator has is to mess with people’s minds. It is a very tapu power. But also as a researcher you have the power to mess with people’s minds. And as someone who is good in the art of rhetoric you have the power to mess with people’s minds. Treat that power with humility and understand that power used wrongly hurts. So it is not enough to intend to be good; it is really important to try and practice the art of being good in public talk.

Te Kotahi Final Tohu - High res

Note: This is the transcribed keynote address by Linda Tuhiwai Smith at the He Manawa Conference 2013. The full Conference Preceding can be found here


  1. “I pretty much know 90% of the Māori audience don’t know how to ask questions.” This statement really hit home. I have never heard or read anyone else ever say this, but in true Linda Smith style, once she’s said it, it’s like ‘dah, of course!’ I will change my personal practice as a result of reading this. When I speak, I will take on the protocol of ‘mihi’ instead of question time and let questions emerge if they do. I will mihi when I have a response to a speaker and if my mihi is all I have to offer, it will be enough (I won’t beat myself up for not having some intelligent sounding question to ask the speaker). Behold the transformative power of rhetoric!
    Thanks for sharing this Kiri.

    Liked by 1 person

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